How do I tell people I have social anxiety?
September 12, 2011 12:23 PM   Subscribe

I've suffered from severe social anxiety for around 7 years. It's not as paralyzing as it once was but I still find it very difficult to talk to people. I never know what to say in social situations so I keep pretty quiet which seems to make people really uncomfortable. I've been told I across as aloof and self involved. I feel like I should let people know why I'm so quiet but I feel weird telling people that I have social anxiety. Is there a way I can communicate that I have a hard time talking to people without coming across as a weirdo.
posted by Chenko to Human Relations (18 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You may receive better advice about how to hide your social anxiety, but in my experience, in a non-professional/formal/impress-the-family setting, "I have a hard time talking to people without coming across as a weirdo" is a better small-talk introductory gambit than most people manage. Perhaps you could experiment, at least one time, with being open enough as to say something like this, and seeing where that leads. You don't need to hide yourself totally to be socially competent.
posted by cincinnatus c at 12:30 PM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I never know what to say in social situations

I've been told I across as aloof and self involved.

These are related. The premise and goal of interaction with someone is a shared understanding. You have to share something of yourself, but also you have to be curious about who you're sharing it with. Their context matters and finding out about it is important, so when you're stuck for something to say try 'penny for your thoughts' or 'how 'bout them Mets?' or 'so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens, what do you think that shit means?'
posted by carsonb at 12:42 PM on September 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh, and then really honestly try to relate to their reaction/response.
posted by carsonb at 12:45 PM on September 12, 2011

"Hey, sorry I get so quiet. I'm kind of an introvert, you know? Being around other people is tons of fun, but sometimes it just totally saps my energy so I don't talk as much."

"Hey, sorry I get so quiet. Being around other people is tons of fun, but sometimes I just kinda get overwhelmed by everything going on so I don't talk as much."

I'm assuming you're working on the anxiety. No need to beat yourself up about still being quiet and anxious around people. Both of the statements above pretty much tell people you're anxious around others while still using pretty neutral terms, describing it more as a personality quirk than a major social disorder. I favor the minimizing approach because I feel that, generally, if you share something important and personal (like a social anxiety disorder) the reaction will likely be equal in measure. But what you probably want is a much more casual approach that acknowledges the problem and then conversation continues onward, which is what the above does.

You can always append a "It's something I'm trying to improve on." at the end.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 1:01 PM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

carsonb's on the right track--asking questions is the easiest way to get engaged in a conversation. It also has the advantage of making the other guy "go first"--you're getting them to open up to you. It might be easier to reciprocate once you know a bit more about who you're talking to.
posted by Maaik at 1:04 PM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you are in a social situation, convention is that people want you to feel included and so they will try to engage with you. If you brush them off because you don't know what to say or how to say it, people will think you are being a jerk, even if you are genuinely just being anxious.

Try responding. You don't have to be so generous in your response as to give yourself away, but just a short, genuine response. So, for instance, if someone says, "How about those Mets?" You can say, "Love 'em. That game last week, right?" or "Y'know, I just never got into baseball. I'm way more of a books guy. You read?"
posted by Sophie1 at 1:20 PM on September 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't think it's weird to admit to people that you find it hard to talk to people - it's something that a lot of people find hard to do and it's uncomfortable for a lot of people. So sharing that with people bonds you to them a little bit.

At a crowded cocktail party with a lot of mingling it might be hard to work into every conversation - so yes, ask a question and smile, and if there's a host or a person you know well you might talk to them beforehand and ask them to help you out a little bit.

In a situation where you have a little more time with a group of people, if you feel awkward just say, "I find it really hard to talk to people, I never know what to say." I would not be surprised if someone else in the group didn't chime in with a "me too" type of response.
posted by mrs. taters at 1:23 PM on September 12, 2011

One thing I've done over the years is to learn to put a friendly half-smile and a look of being interested in my surroundings on my face when I'm in a social situation like that. It means I'm still standing there not talking to anybody, but to the people around me I look like I'm engaged with what's going on and might have something amusing to say about it. It seems to make the difference between coming off as "somewhat reserved" versus "aloof".
posted by Lexica at 1:49 PM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been told I across as aloof and self involved.
I keep pretty quiet which seems to make people really uncomfortable.

Find new friends who appreciate you.
posted by Wordwoman at 2:08 PM on September 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm going to argue that you don't owe anyone an explanation. One thing that I've learned in dealing with a certain level of social anxiety is that I often overestimated how others interpret my silence. When we feel anxious, sometimes we perceive our silence as being "loud" and very obvious, when the fact is that most people simply don't care about it. If they do have a passing observation of it, they will likely not carry it with them into the future. In other words, they don't go home talking about that guy that was so quiet at the party, and likely won't think much about it after the fact. The person that I found worried most about my shyness was me. I'm guessing that if anyone was actively pointing it out to you, they were resolving their own social anxiety by making more noise about it. So, I don't think you have to internalize this too much or feel that you owe much of an explanation.

One thing that helped me a lot in these situations is realizing that it's okay to feel nervous, it's okay to even look nervous. It's NO BIG DEAL. And people really aren't as bothered when someone looks or feels that way as we think, as long as we wear that reality honestly. I found that I was often more worried about appearing nervous or antisocial than I was about whatever it was that made me nervous in that social situation in the first place. When I realized that it was no big deal to look or feel nervous and that people really weren't going to hold that against me (there's sort of an out-of-body and detached experience that you need to practice that allows you to look at yourself in a sympathetic, 3rd person way, instead of feeling trapped internally by your own emotions), some of those external issues, like being overly quiet, started to melt away a bit.

Of course, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to be more social or whatnot, or that people won't notice when we are quiet. It's just that as you work this in to your overall understanding of your social etiquette, you might think about what kind of weight to place on it. Because at the end of the day, one of the things that helped me get past a lot of my social anxiety was realizing that people often don't care about things as often as we think they do, and they generally aren't looking for a deep explanation. People get nervious, and the cool people at the party actually understand this. The level of relief that this understanding brings can be a gamechanger.
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:20 PM on September 12, 2011

It's okay to admit being shy. If someone comments on the fact that you're quiet, say "I'm kind of shy; sometimes I don't know what to say when I'm with new people." Most people will then make an effort to talk to you, which helps you deal with the anxiety of how to talk to people. Some people won't, but most people are nice, given a chance. Saying you have social anxiety or phobia will tend to make people clam up, as they won't know how to respond, or will respond by saying 'Oh, not really, you seem fine' or some such blather, buy shy is socially pretty acceptable.
posted by theora55 at 3:41 PM on September 12, 2011

This doesn't apply to one-on-one conversations, but in casual groupings, some simple one-word contributions can really help. There are plenty of people who like to talk, and tell stories, and it usually only takes a few little "really/wow/awesome!/ha/you're kidding/I've never heard that before/what happened next?" comments lobbed out by you to keep them going and to make you feel, and seem, a fully participating part of the group. Non-verbal ways to engage like occasionally nodding, smiling or laughing (rather than being stone-faced just because you're quiet), help with this, too.

If you feel like someone's being too insistent on getting you to talk when you don't feel like it, I've seen a relaxed, friendly "I'm really more of a listener than a talker" explanation work well to deflect the conversation to someone else.
posted by argonauta at 3:56 PM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I use Lexica's technique. Let your body language "talk" for you. Lean slightly forward, toward the person who is speaking. Lift your eyebrows a little. Smile and nod. Practice these expressions with a mirror or a trusted friend first, though. Until it becomes natural, it's easy to overdo. You want your body language to say "I am very interested in what you are saying and want you to continue talking (even if the main reason I want you to keep talking is so I don't have to)" not "I can't wait to chop you up and eat you for dinner."
posted by dogmom at 6:35 PM on September 12, 2011

I admit to being shy, as theora55 suggested. The Feeling Good Handbook has a great section on Social Anxiety, and the suggestion there is to definitely open up to people about your anxieties. Not because you "owe people an explanation", but because you clearly want to feel closer to others and being open about yourself is the first step to that.

I've found that it helps to be aware of opportunities to share this info instead of just blurting it out at a random time. For example, one time a friend wanted to pop into my apartment to use my bathroom (I get kind of anxious about people coming into my space). She could see that I hesitated, and asked what was up. Instead of saying "nothing!" as I usually would do, I said, "oh, for some reason I get a little anxious when I have guests because I worry that my house isn't clean enough -- but definitely come in, I'm trying to lighten up about that". She just kind of laughed and said, "yeah, it's no big deal!" And then life continued. It felt good to say it, because otherwise it feels like you're hiding something, you know?

When you do tell people that you're shy, I would suggest doing it with a smile because otherwise they may take it as a brush-off. If someone said to me unsmilingly, "I'm shy", I'd think, alright, I get the message, and would back off. But if I say, invited someone to a party and they said with a smile "I'm a little shy", I'd say, "no problem there! We're all kind of introverts too".

And a last tip: LISTEN to others. I used to get so tied up in thinking about how I was going to respond to what people were saying that I frequently wouldn't actually listen to them very well. Even if they couldn't tell, I found it extremely exhausting and really, I think it made me feel kind of lonely because I wasn't truly connecting with others -- just trying to create a "seamless" conversation. I've been focusing now on really listening to what people say and then letting a response come naturally once they're finished. This has been pretty helpful for me in dealing with my anxiety.
posted by imalaowai at 7:34 PM on September 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here is a tip I heard one time about fear of flying, could be just as useful socially. Try to find someone who looks a little uncomfortable, and approach them and see what you can figure out to do to help put them at ease. It takes the focus off of you, gives you something to be curious about, and makes you useful all at once! A lot of social anxiety seems to be the intense self awareness that occurs... Someone needs your help, go find em.
posted by jcworth at 8:13 PM on September 12, 2011

I feel like I should let people know why I'm so quiet but I feel weird telling people that I have social anxiety.

I don't think you have to tell people you have social anxiety. It would probably come off as more self involved if, unrelated to anything everyone else had been saying, you said "I have social anxiety", because you're showing that you're not listening to what other people are saying and only thinking about yourself.

Instead, I'd try to get better at asking follow up questions. You'll seem like you care about other people, but you don't actually have to say much if you can get them to talk about their trip to India, auto repair, the revelations of Joseph Smith, etc.

One good thing is the "yes, and" idea from improv. Another is (I forget where I heard this from), when someone tells you that they did something "BIG" (e.g., trip to India, I don't know why that came to mind) you can ask three questions:

1. What did you think before you ... ?

[let them talk]

2. When you did ... how was it different from what you thought it would be like?

[let them talk]

3. Now that you've done ... how have you changed?
posted by cupcake1337 at 8:28 PM on September 12, 2011

One of my now-best friends led with, "I'm sorry, I'm really shy," the first time I met her and I was chattering away (because I chatter when I'm nervous, as my mouth is inversely connected to my nervousness nerve). I instantly felt more at ease.

I do the same thing sometimes now. I just say, "I'm sorry if I'm being a dork, I'm feeling nervous" or "I'm shy on the inside" (AS I AM OBVIOUSLY NOT SHY ON THE OUTSIDE, given the inverse relationship of my nervousness and my mouth). People always respond generously and with understanding and it always makes me feel a bit better.

Also, yes, everyone loves a listener, so people probably are enjoying your quietness, not thinking it's odd. They're thinking, "Boy, Chenko is the best conversationalist I've ever talked to!" while you're thinking, "AAAAAUGH, I have to say something!" No you don't. Lots of people like to talk and talk and talk as long as they have a listener. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:00 PM on September 12, 2011

I'm in the same boat. Generally I don't have to make an announcement to friends, because social anxiety is such a big part of my life that it tends to come up eventually in conversation. Like, I'll tell them if earlier in the day a super-extroverted person came up to me and was like "HI MY NAME'S GREG WHAT'S YOURS LET'S BE FRIENDS" and I responded by getting all twitchy and mumble-y and then felt like a total weirdo. I think the least awkward way to let people know that you have social anxiety is to try to be open about discussing what you're experiencing.

As for specific situations where you feel the need to reassure people that you're not being silent because you hate them, I say that if they ask (the dreaded "are you okay?" or something) a succinct "Yep, I'm fine! I'm just quiet" should do it. But if they don't ask, I second SpacemanStix in saying that you don't owe them an explanation. They're probably not judging your silence as harshly as you imagine, and trying to make sure that every random person you come into contact with forms an accurate impression of you is a fool's errand anyway.
posted by lostcosmonaut at 1:17 PM on September 13, 2011

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